VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
A vote in Africa
November 4, 2008 by Kate Sands Adams
People from every age group and every corner of the village are here. Elders are the first to take seats in the impromptu meeting space, a compound fenced in by banana trees and grass mats. But some women are still making their way back from the fields.
In Nyangezi, South Kivu, local residents and IRC community workers, including myself, are gathering for a “needs identification” meeting. We have planned a focus-group activity which requires at least 20 men and 20 women. So we wait.
To occupy the time, we ask those already assembled why they came today. An older woman is the first to reply. “I’m from this community, so I have to know what’s happening in the community,” she says. “I’ve never before participated in a development project.”
Nyangezi is well into its development project, although change is not yet apparent. The locals recently elected a Village Development Committee in what was, for many, a unique democratic experience.
“Because the counting was public, we saw that our votes were placed in the bucket,” explains one woman. “The whole process is open to everyone. It makes me proud to be a member of the electoral committee.”
Voting is just one step in the complex process known as Tuungane, a three-year initiative launched by the IRC in April 2007 and supported by the U.K. Department for International Development. Named after the Kiswahili word for “moving forward together,” Tuungane aims to improve socioeconomic recovery, governance, and social cohesion in four conflict-affected areas of eastern Congo. After elections, community members identify priorities by allocating Tuungane grant money.
When enough residents have gathered for the meeting, we divide into groups. Women gather around a piece of white butcher paper taped to one wall, while men do the same a short distance away. Both parties make separate lists and then come together to determine overlap or agreement.
The women’s list include the words barabara (road) and masomo (school), illustrated with drawings for those who cannot read. Somewhat surprisingly, the men’s list is nearly identical. It seems that villagers discussed priorities before they arrived at the meeting. The men have even listed a new maternity ward, although it falls a bit lower on their agenda than it does on the women’s.
In the end, the villagers vote for a road. “If we can rehabilitate our roads, that will permit us to be in contact with many partners,” says one man. Another, a primary-school teacher, observes the process and declares he is “delighted” with the progress. “My students hope that Tuungane will give them a good school,” he explains.
The residents of Nyangezi certainly see their world expanding beyond the village boundaries. “Training is necessary in order for people to be capable of becoming a part of the directing class,” says a villager who hopes to see the Tuungane approach spread from the local to the national level. “Tuungane helps our youth.”